David Fincher at his most pragmatic and ruthlessly efficient. You won’t find many of his favourite themes here – not a serial killer in sight, just a deep-fried American psycho – but he’s here to do a job this time, and he makes sure you know it, complete with sufficient bells and whistles to keep him happy. This was, after all, a practical exercise, an illustration of bankability after the failure of Fight Club (regardless of its burgeoning afterlife). Consequently, while one may overlay a variety of readings – feminist, surveillance state – Panic Room’s status as a machine designed to elicit but a single response in the viewer (tension) is very direct.
Indeed, much as Jodie Foster’s (and Kristen Stewart’s) female protagonist is touted, it’s been pointed out that this application was nothing new, with a not entirely dissimilar premise furnishing Wait Until Dark 35 years earlier. Most of the movie’s features come at the behest of contriving a situation, rather than thematic exploration (so the diabetic daughter is a very brazenly a case of “How do I create a situation where the protagonist needs to leave the impregnable safe place?”) Which isn’t necessarily to dismiss them either, but it’s a different situation to the current order, whereby statement and progressive cause are paramount (virtue signalling). In Panic Room, if you notice subtext(s), that’s fine, but they aren’t there to get in the way of the nuts and bolts.
Of course, you need to be willing to go along for that ride without drawing too much attention to the prodigious plot holes or overall plausibility. David Koepp won $4m for his screenplay (his last entirely self-originated project until last year’s KIMI, also home-invasion and surveillance focussed), and it went through various changes in plot and character – Hollywood hermaphrodite Nicole Kidman and Hayden Patinerie were initially cast, while Burnham, a white-collar gambling addict and “slick, technical type”, became the blue-collar safe room installer – in the process of Fincher taking the reins. Fincher had considered or been considered for a number of commercial projects, including Spider-Man (Sony hated his pitch – can you imagine a Spidey who’s no fun? And don’t say The Amazing Spider-Man) and Catch Me If You Can (again, a light-hearted romp from Fincher?) before settling on a movie that would very much be virtuoso technique first, à la Hitchcock or De Palma; the opening titles are very Hitchcock, but with a CG lustre.
In a sense, then, Panic Room is similar to Seven: making something more of something rudimentary, that could otherwise be generic and easily dismissible. Unlike Seven, though, Panic Room never rises above its essential limitations. It’s assuredly the best version of itself it could be, plausibility aside (a breathless rollercoaster thrill ride), but it’s no more impactful than that. You don’t remember the characters, but you do remember the CGI-assisted camera gliding through a coffee jug handle. The film itself is symptomatic of Hollywood’s desire for the “something in/on a something genre” (Die Hard in a Phone Booth, for example), so once it has been set up, it becomes an exercise in how to sustain itself. This means, at some point (let’s call it the third act), Meg (Foster) has to get out of the panic room to do stuff, whereupon the movie exponentially increases in tenuousness. When she runs about smashing the cameras and Raoul wonders “Why the hell didn’t we do that?” it’s a neat and welcome meta comment on the screenplay’s flaws in logic and behaviour.
One has to allow for a number of caveats, including proven pyschopath Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) not killing ex-hubby Stephen (Patrick Bauchau), not killing Sarah (Stewart) and then, after Raoul’s hand is mangled and he has lost his gun, not having Burnham (Forest Whitaker), who clearly hates his guts, take advantage of the situation and do him in while he can. Indeed, as much as Raoul has been transformed from a “giant scary hulking guy” into a de-rigueur degenerate white-trash southern hick, Burnham is emphasised as the gentle black giant (see The Green Mile) who returns to save the day (cathartically, Meg should have been the one to dispatch hick, but I guess they didn’t want to give her blood on her hands) – although it might as well be argued as the sensitive Forrest Whittaker trope, given that wounded dignity is his standard, Idi Amin-aside, pose.
Burnham: If some idiot with a sledgehammer could break in, do you really think I’d still have a job?
Perhaps the most entertaining performance here comes from Jared Leto as Junior, instigator of all this interior redecoration; Junior’s out to claim his grandfather’s wealth, but he’s rapidly undone because he’s an idiot. Whether it’s completely miscalculating the occupancy, trying to get into the panic room from underneath with sledgehammers, having his gas attack (literally) backfire on him or reveal a little too much more than he should to his colleagues, he’s a reliably privileged twit seeking faux-authenticity (hence the drugs, lowlifes and cornrows). It’s no wonder he gets shot in the head. Of which, Fincher just loved mutilating Leto – “I felt like destroying something beautiful” – as much as he did sculpting nu-androgyne female leads.
On the subject of privilege, this is again a case of Koepp working backwards; if you’ve got a house with a panic room, then the owners, by necessity, need to be wealthy. But you don’t want your audience to resent them, so much better to make your protagonist female (vulnerability raises the stakes: De Palma 101) and divorced (blame hubby for all that privilege and objectionable wealth). This is underlined when Stephen (it’s Kidman’s voice on the phone when Meg calls) does answer the call for help but, being a complete idiot, just stands there while the criminals decide what to do with him. Later, his status as a useless specimen of male-dom is confirmed by his getting beaten up (twice), the fact that he can’t shoot a gun, and pleading that Meg “Just do everything they ask”.
He ran off with a younger model (“Fuck him”: “I agree. But don’t”), but one has to ask, since the actor is almost a quarter of a century older than Foster, was Meg also younger model? And what to make of the bad karma of her husband’s wealth? He’s “in pharmaceuticals”, so one might suggest everything that happens here is punishment for selling oneself to big pharma, even if it’s simply by passive association. Up to and including Sarah’s medical condition (she requires their drugs – glucagon – to survive but obviously, they don’t cure her; this is the Rockefeller allopathic medicine dependency protocol).
However, Panic Room needs its “feminist heroes” (with hindsight, generationally lesbian feminist heroes – of course, this was back when Hollywood hermaphrodite Kristen Stewart was being mistaken for a boy…) so it’s incumbent that they should be free from blame; Sarah avers this when Burnham ponders how things might have been different had he all their wealth to spare (Meg has so much of it, she can idly debate going back to university, where doubtless she can amass some more entirely superfluous knowledge. When what’s really important is watching Titanic – for Morse code – and MacGyver – for connecting phone lines – and Die Hard – for blowing up bad guys).
It’s perhaps stating the bleeding obvious, but the room itself is the source of the conflict, an ouroboros effect whereby society’s ills dictate a solution that feeds society’s ills. Fincher cited The Exorcist as an influence on Seven, but the aspect of Panic Room that most fits his oeuvre is the MKUltra-directed propensity for inculcating prevailing fear in society (on said theme, both Foster and Stewart represent former child actors in Hollywood, with all the concomitant fetishisation – see John Hinckley – and creepiness attached; on IMDB, there’s an apparently unironic nod to male fans obsessing over her feet because of a film she starred in at ten years old. They are poster children/adults for social-engineering projects in sexual identity and attitudes). The Exorcist brought the devil into your own home. Seven and its ilk (the serial killer) told you to dread being randomly snatched by a psychopath (and Seven set out you didn’t even need to be a pretty girl for that to happen). Panic Room emphasises, again, that you simply aren’t safe in your haven, even when you’ve taken every precaution to batten down its hatches. One might make a reading of it picking out the one percent as having it coming from those they feed off, but the picture’s point is clearly to have you identify with those carefully mitigated one percenters.
Fincher namechecked solid influences – Rear Window; Straw Dogs; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – but it’s very notable that all three transcend any limitations of the material (albeit the latter ultimately falls short). He knows this, that Panic Room needs to be engineered for maximum box-office satisfaction, such that his only minor deviations relate to superficial elements (not cutting it for a PG-13); it seems he would have been willing to alter the ending, had the set not been struck (audiences rated the SWAT raid and Burnham’s capture poorly). Howard Shore, the go-to guy for morbid foreboding, returns to furnish the score. For the most part, the functional mode of the piece is a benefit; when Fincher does indulge himself, it’s a mistake (the bearer bonds fluttering off in the wind is naff visual poetry). Because of the emphasis on aesthetic prowess, some of the effects haven’t aged so well, most notably Junior catching fire. Also note is Paul Schulze (Ryan Chapelle of 24, which began the same year) as the alert cop who tries to get Meg to fess up she needs help.
In the Fincher pantheon, Panic Room tends to get a fair bit of stick, probably because it is, by design, so unfinessed and no-bones-about its function. I actually think that’s a virtue; this isn’t the mutton dressed as lamb of later lurid pulp thrillers The Girl with Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. There is, though I hesitate to use the word, a certain purity of purpose about Panic Room that does it credit. That it’s his shortest film – it could have done with being even tighter, IMO – tells you all you need to know, as the only real indulgence here is with regard to technical virtuosity.